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Victoria Theatre - Jubilee Year Celebration

Peter Cheeseman and The Victoria Theatre

Peter Cheeseman in rehearsals for the second musical documentary play The Staffordshire RebelsPeter Cheeseman devoted 36 years of his working life (1962-1998) to running the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and the purpose-built New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

As the local community and wider world began to recognise the value of the Vic Theatre’s work, Cheeseman was one of the first to receive an Honorary MA from Keele University in 1967. Towards the end of his career, he received the Theatre Management Association’s award for Outstanding Contribution to Theatre, an Honorary Doctorate from Staffordshire University, and was appointed a CBE in the 1998 New Year’s Honours. A few months before his death in 2010, Cheeseman received the Young Vic Award, which is presented annually to a theatre professional who, through their life’s work, has inspired a younger generation of theatre practitioners.

In addition to his role as Vic Theatre Director, Peter Cheeseman regularly served on numerous professional committees, including the Arts Council Drama Panel, BBC Radio Stoke Advisory Council, and the Council of Repertory Theatres (CORT). Concerned with the quality of vocational training for actors and technical staff, in 1975 he co-founded the National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) which he later chaired from 1997 to 2004. 

Photo shows Peter Cheeseman in rehearsals for the second musical documentary play The Staffordshire Rebels (1965) – photo by Ian Stone.

text written by peter cheeseman for programme  

The back page of the programme for A Night to Make the Angels Weep June 1964 written by Peter Cheeseman explaining the concept and importance of theatre-in-the-round. 

Text from the programme

"When Stephen Joseph founded the Studio Theatre Company nine years ago he was concerned with two things – to explore the potentialities of theatre in the round as a means of restoring the importance of the actor, and to discover new writers and new plays. These remain the important foundations of our work at the Victoria Theatre, the first permanent base of the Studio Theatre Company. The permanence of the Victoria however has introduced a third element into our basic policy: the full exploration of our relationship with the community which we serve - the great Potteries conurbation and the surrounding area of North Staffordshire.

We have found that theatre in the round gives tremendous impact to the presence of the actor and makes possible a high degree of interplay between him and the audience. It also presents him to the audience as a human being, on the same scale as the spectator, and displays each performance in this particular light. Its technical problems largely consist in unlearning the complex stylisation of the proscenium theatre and in learning to project performances in a new way.

The form is rich to work in. One of its most interesting characteristics is its versatility. At one extreme for many modern plays, the setting can be entirely realistic, built up from real furniture and properties and more strongly localised than a setting which has to be backed by painted scenery. At the other extreme, an empty acting area has the same potentialities as Shakespeare’s Globe, and the same mobility. It is worth noting that our greatest box office successes have been three plays using the theatre in this way: Brian Way’s Pinocchio, our own musical documentary The Jolly Potters and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta

Many writers who have worked with us have enjoyed both the freedom of theatre in the round and the emphasis it placed on the actor. Each has used it in a different way, and responded to it in a different way.

At Stoke theatre in the round is a powerful factor in attracting a new audience. The personal impact of the actor provides the strongest contrast to television and cinema. The human contact which the performance provides is the best kind of basis for a real relationship between the artist and the community in which he works."

Background: early life 1932- 1959

Peter Cheeseman (1932-2010) was born in Portsmouth, the eldest of 3 children, but spent his childhood in North East England. His mother came from Gateshead and was the daughter of a railwayman and a veteran trades unionist. His father first worked as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Service, later becoming a Civil Servant in the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Due to his father’s frequent postings around the country, Cheeseman attended five different primary schools and a similar number of secondary schools, being constantly labelled “the new boy.”

Following a scholarship in 1942 to Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Cheeseman went on to study at four more secondary schools - in Manchester, Southport, Wallasey and finally Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool, spending his teenage years on Merseyside. His mother, a keen amateur performer of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, persuaded her son to attend drama evening classes as an alternative to incipient antisocial behaviour on the streets of a Liverpool housing estate. Peter agreed, having decided it was the only way to meet the film star, Jean Simmons. Though he never did meet his teenage crush, theatre became his abiding interest from then on.

During his years in Liverpool, Cheeseman was involved in drama activities with the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), experienced the creativity of newly arrived continental films, and attended productions mounted by the left-wing Unity Theatre. He was particularly struck by a Living Newspaper production, a theatre documentary about the American political activist Joe Hill, which made use of factual material interspersed with live music and folk song – a style which clearly influenced his approach to the Vic’s musical documentaries. He later reflected that “[It] left me with a firm belief that music was essential to provide an emotional momentum in a theatrical situation packed with heterogeneous factual material...”. (Introduction to The Knotty – A Musical Documentary, published Methuen, 1970).

In 1951, a state scholarship and a place in the English Honours School took him to Sheffield University. However, too much time spent on theatrical activities saw Cheeseman ejected from the Honours course, reading instead for a general BA which included English Literature, Latin and History. Meantime, he made a mark for himself as a student director and was Chairman of the Students’ Union Dramatics Committee for several years. Graduating in 1955, he believed his degree was a merciful gesture for having made a fair job of directing the Royal Masque when the young Queen Elizabeth inaugurated Sheffield’s Jubilee year in 1954. 

Peter at Sheffield University

Peter at Sheffield University, Chairman of the Students’ Union Dramatics Committee and director of the Royal Masque produced for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954.

Cheeseman stayed on at Sheffield to train as a teacher and after qualifying with distinction married a fellow student, Joyce Holliday, whom he had met through the Dramatics Society. In 1956, mandatory National Service could be deferred no longer and gaining a short service commission in the Royal Air Force Education Branch, he spent three years on a Scottish Fighter station without ever setting foot in an aircraft, despite the title ‘Flying Officer Cheeseman BA’ on his office door. With an eye to further drama activities, he converted the dilapidated Airmen’s Dance Hall into an end-stage theatre and directed several productions for the all-ranks Station Drama Group. Having completed his National Service in 1959, the next step was to find employment. 

Early career in the theatre: from Derby to Stoke 1959-1961

Derby Playhouse provided Cheeseman’s first professional job, where he had the opportunity to direct a few productions as Assistant Director. Derby was a traditional repertory theatre, producing a different play every week, following a format known as “weekly rep.” This meant the actors performed one play in the evenings and rehearsed the next week’s play every morning, taking the afternoons off to learn their lines. Cheeseman eventually persuaded the Board of Directors to try out a two-weekly format to extend the rehearsal period, but the crunch came when he advocated for all day rehearsals, insisting the cast rehearsed in the afternoons. This being seen as a radical move too far, Cheeseman handed in his resignation. 

Working for Stephen Joseph 1961-1967

Having met Stephen Joseph at a theatre conference, Cheeseman answered an advert placed by Studio Theatre Limited in The Stage. He was invited to Scarborough for an interview and an exciting opportunity unfolded. Joseph needed a tour manager and someone to take on the management of a proposed permanent base for the Studio Theatre Company, which was being negotiated with Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council. Cheeseman accepted the role without hesitation and so began his theatrical journey towards the Victoria Theatre.

Cheeseman was rapidly initiated into Stephen Joseph’s operational routine, which was underpinned with the discipline and practicality of a military operation. Spending long hours on touring journeys in conversation with Joseph was an enlightening experience for Cheeseman, as was his introduction to the potential of theatre-in-the-round.

“Stephen was the most radical, imaginative, far-seeing, and intelligent theatre director I have ever met. He was also the most consummately organised ...[He] had a simple clear sightedness about theatre spaces that I found completely liberating.”  (Cheeseman: unpublished paper, 2002)

Remembering vividly an early visit to one of their touring venues, Cheeseman recalled:
“The hall was empty for a moment, and I stood and looked at the theatre, ready for actors and audience to meet a few hours later. The space seemed to transmit energy, to have an extraordinary potency, a thrilling potential. It was a discovery and a realisation that inspired the rest of my working life in the theatre, with endless creative exploration of that potential.”(Cheeseman: unpublished paper, 2002)

Elizabeth Bell in the spotlight on opening night in October 1962

The stage area of the Victoria Theatre before the opening night of the first play in October 1962 – Elizabeth Bell in the spotlight

In early 1962, however, the government was unable to sanction the necessary financial loan to Newcastle Borough Council and the proposed new theatre scheme collapsed. Though Stephen Joseph was devastated by this turn of events, he was eventually persuaded by Cheeseman to search for temporary premises in the locality. When the lease on the Victoria Theatre building became available over the boundary in Stoke-on-Trent, Joseph set about its conversion to a theatre-in-the-round to provide the Studio Theatre Company with a permanent base in the Potteries. Meanwhile, Joseph had already accepted an academic post in the new drama department at Manchester University and readily handed over the management of the Victoria Theatre enterprise to Cheeseman. 

Before settling in Stoke with his wife and baby daughter, Peter Cheeseman had read Arnold Bennett’s novel, Clayhanger, which convinced him that the Potteries district had a unique history to be explored with an abundance of local stories to be told onstage. All that was needed were researchers, writers and an audience. The Studio Theatre company already included writers such as David Campton and Alan Ayckbourn, and working with playwrights to produce new plays was to become a regular part of the creative process for Cheeseman as a theatre director. 

From the outset, Cheeseman determined to make the Victoria Theatre a valued part of the local community and set about contacting factories, schools, colleges and community organisations, offering talks and complimentary tickets. He believed the theatre should be regarded as a public service, accessible to all, though it took more than a decade for the annual audiences to build from 27% of capacity (389 seats) in the first year to 71% in 1974.

As the Vic Theatre’s acting ensemble evolved, it was the gradual loss of writers in the company that presented Cheeseman with the opportunity to produce a group-created play in 1964. This was to be The Jolly Potters, the first of the musical documentaries, based on extensive research into the history of the pottery industry and the local Chartist riots of 1842. 

The show was seen by the television documentary filmmaker, Philip Donnellan, who introduced Cheeseman to the BBC radio producer Charles Parker. Both Donnellan and Parker were interested in recording the lives of ordinary working people and both were influential on Cheeseman’s documentary work, particularly in the recording of local people’s stories. Charles Parker had produced a series of Radio Ballads for the BBC, which mixed recordings of ordinary people’s speech with folk song and instrumental music. When Cheeseman asked for his advice, Parker told him: “Listen. Listen to people talking.”

The extensive collection of audio recordings in the Victoria Theatre Archive, made over a period of 30 years, is a testament to that advice and holds a wealth of social history relating to the industrial heritage of North Staffordshire and the personal stories of people who have lived and worked there. 

Stephen Joseph believed that theatre-in-the-round would only be taken seriously when a permanent purpose-built theatre had been created. Though he ultimately fell out with Cheeseman over the financial management of the Victoria Theatre, the design and building of the New Vic in 1986, led by Peter Cheeseman, transformed Joseph’s belief into a reality which leaves a legacy for future generations to enjoy.

Theresa Heskins, the current artistic director of the New Vic, has said the theatre's work, "both in our in-the-round auditorium and throughout the broader community, will be a lasting tribute to Peter's vision of a theatre that is accessible, inclusive and democratic".

Images from some key productions


Cheeseman directing Wizards All in 1977

Cheeseman directing Wizards All in 1977, a new play about famous Staffordshire people compiled by Ken Whitmore – photo Victoria Theatre Archive

Cheeseman working with miners at Hem Heath Colliery

Cheeseman working with miners at Hem Heath Colliery on the pit safety show Jowl Jowl and Listen Lads! (1977) – photo by Chris Rushton

Cheeseman working with playwright Arthur Berry and composer Stuart Johnson

Cheeseman working with playwright Arthur Berry and composer Stuart Johnson on the new ballad opera Quiet Please! (1981) – photo by Don McNeil 

Director Peter Cheeseman working with playwright Tony Perrin

Director Peter Cheeseman working with playwright Tony Perrin on his new play The Bending Machine (1978) – photo by Don McNeil

 Rehearsing the documentary play The Dirty Hill

Rehearsing the documentary play The Dirty Hill (1990) in the New Vic auditorium - photo by Paul W. Jones
In the foreground: (L-R) directors Rob Swain and Peter Cheeseman
In the background: (L) musician John Kirkpatrick working on the songs with members of the cast. 


Post retirement projects: theatre archive and directors' training

In the years following his retirement from the New Vic, having been appointed Honorary Archivist for the Victoria Theatre Archive (VTA), Cheeseman oversaw its move from the theatre to Staffordshire University, where it has been housed in the library’s Special Collections since 2002 under a long-term loan agreement with the New Vic. In addition to managing the archive, Cheeseman’s final mission was to improve theatre directors’ training. To this end, he initiated and co-developed a new MFA course in Theatre Directing (Master of Fine Arts) at Birkbeck College London University, a co-operative project between Birkbeck and the NCDT which launched in 2004 and is still running today. 

Further reading

Directors’ Theatre by Judith Cook, published by Harrap & Co Ltd., 1974

On Directing – Interviews with Directors, edited by Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst, published Faber and Faber Ltd., 1999.

The Knotty – A Musical Documentary with Introduction by Peter Cheeseman, published Methuen, 1970.

The Repertory Movement: A History of Regional Theatre in Britain, by George Rowell and Anthony Jackson, published University of Cambridge Press, 1984.

Peter Cheeseman biography on Wikipedia